It's Whiskey Wednesday.
These days, in the interest of drinking more like a discerning adult and less like the girls from Spring Breakers, I'm cultivating my appreciation for the robust yet affordable Malbec, the post-dinner splash of Fernet. Give me a nice pint over three shots of well tequila any day! Or, most any day.
I've always loved bourbon, but knew I had more to learn. So I consulted Peggy Noe Stevens, the world’s first female master bourbon taster. Stevens earned the title of Master Taster for Woodford Reserve while overseeing guest services at the distillery’s tourist attraction in Versailles, Kentucky. Though she started off responsible for sales, marketing and front-of-house operations, she was fascinated by the distilling process, and befriended Lincoln Henderson, the master distiller at the time. She followed him around until Woodford’s general manager suggested that she train formally. After she became a master taster, Stevens served on tasting panels and traveled the world as a Woodford ambassador, which is the perfect job, the most perfect job ever.
Several years ago, Stevens left the beverage industry and started her own branding consultancy, Peggy Noe Stevens & Associates, but her love for bourbon remains strong. She still conducts frequent tastings, and in 2011, she founded Bourbon Women to unite her kindred spirits, so to speak. Below are some highlights from our conversation, and if her flavor descriptions aren’t delicious enough already, imagine them spoken with a buttery Kentucky drawl.
The training to become a master taster took a year, right?
Yeah, I think it was probably close to a year when all was said and done.
What sort of tests do you have to pass to become a master taster?
There's no written test, because it’s all about your palate. That’s the thing that I think would surprise most people, that becoming a tasting expert is really about experience and focus. I mean, yes, you absolutely have to understand the production process, you have to understand how different things affect flavor, like wood and water and grain. Those are all very key, but really, the more you taste—and I think people will be happy about this—the more you taste, the better you do, the more you become aware.
If you understand your spice rack, if you understand the fruits that are in your refrigerator, if you understand what a good steak tastes like, then you’re going to understand the flavors that are behind bourbon. When you taste spice, you might think of specific memories you have of cinnamon, cardamom, pumpkin. You can taste pepper, and then you ask yourself if it's black pepper, maybe white pepper. You taste something fruity, you might think of apple—but what kind of apple? Red, yellow, green? Or are you getting a flavor like orange or pomegranate? When you start to tap into the memories you've associated with different foods, that's where the understanding of tasting begins. Does that make sense?
Yeah, definitely. I've been intimidated by wine-tasting vocabulary before, but when you think about it ultimately being derived from these subjective sense-memory impressions, it seems much more accessible. I guess the same is true for bourbon.
That’s exactly right. In general, wine has become more approachable; you've got the box of wine, or the lower-priced table wine, and it's more of an everyday-occasion drink instead of a special-occasion drink. I think that’s what bourbon has done so well, too. It’s approachable. Even though there are a lot of bourbons on the market today, you still can have a portfolio of bourbons and get to know them.
Can you walk me through a proper bourbon tasting, step by step?
Sure! The first thing I always encourage is to leave the bourbon alone. [laughs] Once it’s poured in a glass, look at it and really observe: what does the bourbon look like? It should always have sparkle, a rich amber color. You’ll note that some bourbons are lighter in color than others, some are darker than others. That tells you the time that it’s spent in the barrel, which adds a lot of color and depth.
The second step would be what I call the nose. The nose is the aroma. Though this can vary, what you’re normally going to get from a bourbon is rich vanilla and caramel. Then you do a walk around the flavor wheel and think, “Okay, what’s the spice that I nose? What’s the fruit that I nose? What is the earthy note that I nose?” That’s where the depth is. Every bourbon has a different essence, and you nose it and kind of pull back those flavors. I then usually add a splash of water, because that further brings out the fruit notes and breaks down the alcohol.
You don’t need much water, just a few drops or a splash. I like people to see how it can change dramatically just by that simple factor.
Then, of course, the best part, in my opinion, is tasting it. This is where I really guide people, because I think some people have an idea like, “Oh my gosh, this is high proof whiskey, it’s going to burn or not taste good.” So I have them take their time with their first taste, because I want them to take a small sip and "chew" on it. Just a very small sip, just to cover their palate a little bit. You don’t take air in, you just kind of chew on it, and see if what you nosed is coming alive in your mouth.
Then the last step, once you've tasted the bourbon (and I give tasters a few minutes to do this) is what’s called the finish. The finish is how the bourbon leaves you. Is it a long, sweet, dry finish that you can still taste in their mouth even though you took a sip a few minutes ago? That’s the sign of a quality whiskey. Does it dissipate? Does it linger? Do you want to take a little sip of water afterwards? Some people like a strong mouth feel, and some people want a real delicate finish. It all depends on the drinker.
That's it. Four steps.
That made me want to chew on some bourbon right now.
[laughs] That’s great.
Do you have flavors that you prefer? Do you have bourbons that you seem to always go back to, or favorite bourbons at the moment?
You know, I don’t even count favorites. I count it as, “What mood am I in right now?” That’s what I like to share with women especially. If it’s early in the week, let’s say, or a very hot day, I might drink a lighter bourbon, maybe a lower proof, or something with more of a honey flavor to it. Then, if it’s a Friday night, and I want a great cocktail, I’ll choose a specific bourbon that I think stands up well to a cocktail like a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned—those are two of my favorites. If I just really want to relax at home, and I’m not going out, then I might get a little more matured bourbon, something heavier.
So it really just depends, and that’s what’s so nice about bourbon! There are so many different levels and styles, and it’s all about how the master distiller creates it. I think it fits the many moods that you can be in and the many occasions that you want it to fit.
When I was studying up on bourbon, I was interested to learn that the color, as you mentioned, comes from the barrel. So there’s no added caramel that gives it that color?
That’s right, and that’s why, I think, we hold bourbon in such high esteem here in Kentucky. We don’t add any preservatives or additives, and there’s no caramel added. It’s an all-natural process. Unlike other spirits or whiskeys that might have a little coloring or flavoring added for support, we don’t do that; it’s really a natural process.
Also, many people don’t know this, but we can only use a barrel one time.That's part of the definition of bourbon: we have to use new, white oak charred barrels every time.
I didn't know that! I also read somewhere that you like to pair cheese with bourbon, which sounds great, although I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about those two things together. Do you have other food/bourbon pairing recommendations?
Yes, and I guess I should explain why I enjoy cheese with bourbon: it’s aged, and a barrel of bourbon is aged as well, so there’s a real complementary effect. You may be really surprised at how bourbon can bring out a flavor. I’ll give you an example: Parmesan cheese. Parmesan is always added last, right? It’s just added for a little bit of flavor. It has kind of a flat taste to it until you put it with something. So, when you take a sip of bourbon, it actually brightens the cheese. It actually brings a more robust flavor to Parmesan. The same with gouda. I would pair a lighter bourbon with gouda so as not to overpower it. If I really want big flavors and boldness, I might have a slice of bleu cheese with a really bold, heavy, well-aged bourbon. It’s like surround sound.
That sounds great.
As far as other flavors, I really enjoy fruit. I guess I fell into that because of cocktails. Blackberries, Bing cherries are absolutely fabulous. And oranges, you know, citrus flavors, I really enjoy that too. Sometimes I’ll just slice some fruit, get my bourbon and then pop a blackberry in my mouth, or a Bing cherry, just because it really is so complimentary, and it really gives a little different flavor, a nuance.
I actually was going to ask you whether you drink cocktails or prefer your bourbon unadorned, but it sounds like you appreciate a good cocktail.
Oh, absolutely! Of course, cocktail making has become an art, as you well know, but one of my favorite ways, truly, to drink bourbon, is just to pour a couple of ounces and then put equal amounts of ice in the bourbon and let the ice soak and melt in the whiskey. That’s one of my favorite ways. But I also love unmasking cocktails that a bartender makes for me.
You’re pretty good at it, I imagine.
I try! I think I could be better.
Photo via Vrylena/flickr.
Elizabeth Baxa is an aspiring screenwriter. She lives and drinks in New York.